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Selection-pressures differ with population density, but few studies investigate how this can affect reproductive physiology. European badger (Meles meles) density varies from solitary to group-living across their range, with reported mating periods throughout the entire year to specific seasonal periods. Badger reproduction is evolutionarily distinct, interrupting the direct progression from conception to gestation with delayed implantation (DI), allowing for superfecundation (SF). To establish the tactical mating flexibility afforded by DI*SF, we used cross-sectional population-level seasonal variation of circulating sex-steroids for 97 females from a high-density population. Oestradiol was highest in spring among non-parous females, then lower in summer, and remained low during following seasons, suggesting that the mating period was restricted to just spring. Oestrone was consistently higher than oestradiol; it was elevated in spring, lowest during summer, peaked in autumn, and remained elevated for pregnant females in winter. This suggests that oestrone sustains pre-implanted blastocysts throughout DI. Progesterone was low throughout, except during winter pregnancy, associated with implantation and luteal development. In contrast to multiple mating periods reported by lower-density studies, our oestradiol data suggest that, at high-density, females exhibit only one mating period (congruent with testosterone patterns in males studied previously in this same population). While additional mating periods during DI enhance fertility assurance at low-density, at high-density, we propose that when coitus is frequent, fertilisation is assured, precluding the need for further cycles and associated mating risks. This endocrinologically flexible DI*SF mating strategy likely represents a form of balancing selection, allowing badgers to succeed at a range of regional densities.

Original publication

DOI

10.1016/j.ygcen.2021.113823

Type

Journal article

Journal

Gen Comp Endocrinol

Publication Date

24/05/2021

Keywords

Alternative reproductive tactics, European badger, delayed implantation, mating strategies, sex steroids, superfoetation